Kristine Paulus is the Plant Records Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.
Plant recorders (people who keep records of plants) are frequently assumed to know all the names of every plant. While we may not actually have every plant name committed to memory, we do ensure that plants in the collection are referred to by their proper names. That is to say, the current taxonomically correct and accepted scientific name. So who gets to name plants? There is no authority over the common names—those vernacular nicknames that vary from one geographic region to another. While they can be memorably descriptive, common names can be confusing. Calling an Abutilon a flowering “maple” just doesn’t make sense. Scientific names, however, are the universally accepted names of plants.
The revered manual that dictates exactly how plants can be named is The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (affectionately known to recorders as simply The Code). Once a plant name is published, that is its name (unless further research leads to reclassification). Numerous authoritative sources compile valid plant names, such as Kew’s Plants of the World Online and the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, allowing plant recorders to check the names and make sure they are accessioned and labeled correctly.